Apr 26

Progressive Relaxation – Top to Bottom

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April Tips of the Week address the increasing state of anxiety and stress (some self-induced), affecting more and more people, young and old alike, in this ‘techno driven’ age. And here we are:


Image of monkey to man sitting at a computer

Yes, indeed we have progressed!


Years ago, I had integrated Progressive Relaxation training in the Age Group Swim program during the early 1980s in Tempe, Arizona, when coaching at ASU and at the Tempe Racquet/renamed Western Reserve Club later on. Believe me, some coaches thought I was ‘wacko’ in those times!

Our swimmers started at the age of 6-years, coming through our Recreational lesson programs. They absolutely “loved bringing their pillow and Linus Blankie (!)” to our sessions, which got so popular that Moms joined in. We also used the method at competitions between breaks rather than have the younger ones ‘run wild’ and getting into troubles somewhere in the bathrooms!

By the way, Progressive Relaxation is included in the new DVD series “Ballet for Swimmers and Ballet for Athletes: Modified Exercises for Cross-training. These are now available. See the Website.


What is Progressive Relaxation?

It is a technique to monitor and control the state of muscular tension. American physician Edmund Jacobson developed the method in the early 1920s, whereby tension is induced deliberately in each specific muscle, and then released as attention is paid to the contrast between tension and relaxation. Progressive Relaxation actually serves as a ‘life time skill’, at least in my opinion, and children should be introduced to this strategy early, as it is part of the developmental triad: physical, technical and mental skill learning.



It is a systematic progression to help lower overall tension and stress levels by creating a state of relaxation when feeling anxious. It is also helpful to reduce physical problems such as stomach and headaches, and is said to improve sleep as well. Athletes with anxiety difficulties are often so tense throughout the day that they fail to recognize any feeling of relaxation, which is important to recognize and differentiate the state of tension. The ultimate purpose is to recognize and release stress by carrying out the progression as needed.



  • Set aside about 15-20 minutes for this practice
  • Progressive relaxation can be used in the Cool-down of a training session
  • Soft music, raindrops, or ocean waves-type recordings are best to create a relaxing environment and the feeling of relaxation
  • Coach introduces the process, talking in a low and soft voice
  • Number of repetitions for each contraction and relaxation depends on time available, group and/or individual need
  • Entire process is repeated several times until one feels completely relaxed
  • Extend the arms relaxed alongside the thighs, palms face down, fingers forward
  • Use counts 1-10 (tensing) and 10-15 (relaxing) – slow and drawn out: 1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000, etc., until having the ‘feel’ for the time span
  • Once athletes know and memorize the progression they can proceed on their own



  • Soft mat or a pillow to rest the head is recommended as long as the body is not tensed due to incorrect positioning in the reclined position
  • Assume supine-lie on a bed, soft floor, or mat on the floor, in a dark or semi dark and quiet room, arms relaxed at sides by body
  • Get as comfortable as possible – comfortable clothes, legs extended (not crossed), bare feet
  • Dim lights and assume a comfortable position (on back)
  • Play selected music quietly (ocean waves, falling rain, wind, trees)



  • Learn to recognize tension in any specific muscle and be able to reduce that tension over time
  • Only target and tense the specific muscle or muscle group
  • Alternate tense and relax specific groups of muscles
  • After tensing, the muscle becomes more relaxed
  • Take a deep breath as deep a breath as possible, and then take some more – exhale slowly
  • Then breathe normally for 15 seconds – exhale more deeply from the lungs, forcing remaining air out
  • Breathing is slow and evenly – think about tension-relaxation contrast
  • Use recommended counts until having the ‘feel’ for the time span
  • Each step is really two-parts – one cycle of tension-relaxation for each set of opposing muscles
  • Concentrate on the ‘feel’ of the muscles, specifically the contrast between tension and relaxation
  • Perform the entire sequence once a day until able to control muscle tensions
  • Problems with pulled muscles, broken bones, or any medical contraindication for physical activities, need medical attention
  • Avoid holding the breath, gritting the teeth, or squinting



Use counts as recommended for tensing and releasing (Refer to previous)

  1. Forehead– wrinkle the forehead – Relax
  2. Eyes– open them as wide as possible (furrow brow) – Relax – close the eyes tightly (squint) – Relax (make sure to completely relax the eyes, forehead, and nose after each tensing)
  3. Cheeks– crunch, crumple-up, squeeze together
  4. Mouth– Bring the lips together or purse as tightly as possible – Relax
  5. Tongue (extended and retracted)– with the mouth open, extend the tongue as far as possible – Relax (let the tongue sit in the bottom of the mouth) – roll it back in the throat as far as possible – Relax
  6. Tongue (roof and floor)– dig the tongue into the roof of the mouth – Relax – dig it into the bottom of the mouth – Relax
  7. Neck (lateral)– with the shoulders straight and relaxed, turn the head slowly to the R, as far as possible – Relax – turn to the L – Relax
  8. Neck (forward)– dig the chin into the chest – Relax (dropping the head is not recommended)
  9. Hands– tense to fists– Relax – extend the fingers – Relax
  10. Biceps– tense the biceps (make a muscle – but shake the hands to make sure they are not tensing into a fist) – Relax
  11. Triceps– tense the triceps (try to bend the arms the wrong way – Relax (drop them)
  12. Shoulders– pull the shoulders back (careful with this one) – Relax – push the shoulders forward (hunch) – Relax
  13. Back– push the body forward so that the back is arched – Relax (be very careful with this one, or don’t do it at all)
  14. Buttocks– tense the buttocks tightly and raise pelvis slightly off the floor – Relax – dig buttocks into the floor – Relax
  15. Thighs– extend the legs and raise them about 6 inches off the floor (stomach should not be tensing) – dig the feet (heels) into the floor – Relax
  16. Stomach– pull in the stomach as far as possible – Relax completely – push out the stomach or tense it as if preparing for a punch in the gut – Relax
  17. Calves and feet– Point the toes (without raising the legs) – Relax
  18. Point the feet up as far as possible (flex – beware of cramps – if you feel them coming on, shake them loose)– Relax
  19. Toes– With legs relaxed, dig the toes into the floor – Relax
  20. Bend the toes up as far as possible – Relax
  21. The entire Progressive Relaxation series can be done once through – head to toes – OR is performed as a repetitive sequenc
  22. Tense– relax the forehead (1); add the eyes ( 2); repeat 1 and 2; add the tongue (3); repeat 1-3; add the neck (4); repeat 1-4; etc. and continue the format top to bottom (head to toes)
  23. Now just relax for a while
  • As the days of practice progress, skip the steps that do no appear to be a problem
  • After becoming more aware of personal tension areas (after few weeks), work only with the affected body parts
  • Exercises do not eliminate tension altogether but when it arises one becomes aware immediately, and therefore is able to “tense and relax” it away


Harvard Medical Health News Publication has these recommendations, which seemingly align with our Newsletter.

  1. Get better Sleep!
  • Anxiety and stress create insomnia and therefore struggles to get a good night’s rest!
  • One may experience trouble falling asleep, have unwelcome awakenings during the night, or fitful sleep – alone or in combination.
  • One may feel drowsy during the day and yet be unable to nap.
  • Insomnia can leave a person feeling anxious and irritable or forgetful, and unable to concentrate, which heightens stress because performance, physical or intellectual is on a downward spiral.
  • Finding an effective solution requires uncovering the cause. Nearly half of insomnia cases stem from psychological or emotional issues! Stressful events, mild depression, or an anxiety disorder therefore can make falling asleep and staying asleep difficult. Ideally, once the underlying cause is identified and treated, insomnia improves, thereby reducing stress.
  1. Reconditioning– A few simple steps can help with insomnia
  • Associate the bedroom with sleep instead of sleeplessness and frustration. For example, use the bed only for sleeping, and go to bed only when sleepy.
  • If unable to sleep, move to another room, and do something relaxing. Stay up until sleepy, and then return to bed. If sleep does not follow quickly, repeat.
  1. Relaxation Techniques– here you have it (refer to our April Newsletter above)!
  • A racing or worried mind is the enemy of sleep! Sometimes physical tension is to blame.
  • Techniques to quiet a racing mind, such as meditation, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and biofeedback can help (refer to Tips of the week and this Newsletter on Progressive Relaxation).
  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)– is directed at insomnia
  • Due to worries and stress, CBT aims to change negative thoughts and beliefs into positive ones.
  • People with insomnia tend to become preoccupied with sleep and apprehensive about the consequences of poor sleep. These worries make relaxing and falling asleep nearly impossible.

The basic tenets of this therapy include setting ‘realistic goals’ and learning to let go of inaccurate thoughts that can interfere with sleep.

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